A couple of weeks ago my friend Georgena and I drove up to Stoke-on-Trent for a much-anticipated visit to the Emma Bridgewater factory. It was a belated birthday treat for each other, delayed due to the fire that broke out there the week before we were originally due to visit. We drove to Stoke the afternoon before, so we wouldn’t be rushed on the actual day. The Experience Day (£30) consisted of a factory tour, afternoon tea, and a session where you can paint your own half-pint mug. I was feeling a little apprehensive about the painting part, as I’m not very creative! However, I have an obsession with factory tours, so focused mainly on that 😊
Emma started her business back in 1995. She was shopping for a special cup and saucer for her mum’s birthday, but nothing seemed to fit the bill. Realising there was a market for well-made, quirky, everyday pottery, she started to design her own. Even if you are not familiar with the name, everyone has seen an Emma Bridgewater mug … in fact, I bet 99% of you have been served drinks in them at some point in time! My ‘introduction’ to Emma Bridgewater pottery was when we rented a holiday cottage in the Isle of Wight in 2006 … the cottage was attached to a pottery and all the cups, saucers, plates, bowls, and even the teapot was the famous Emma Bridgewater polka dot. It felt quite posh to use them! I have since bought mugs of my favourite animals – I’m definitely a fan.
The business remains a family-based enterprise. Emma runs it alongside her husband Matthew Rice, and they both create the designs. The Emma Bridgewater Factory is one of the largest employers of potters in the Stoke area.
The Emma Bridgewater factory was originally built in 1883 for the Meakin Brothers. They produced cheap ironstone china for the domestic English market, as well as for export all over the world. Emma Bridgewater moved in during 1996. Every piece of Emma Bridgewater pottery has been made there ever since. It’s a beautiful industrial building.
Our Day: Part 1, Arrival
Arriving at the factory was straightforward enough – I had sat in traffic outside it the previous evening while working my way to the hotel! There’s a large visitor carpark and you walk into a courtyard, where you’ll see the entrance to their factory shop and café.
We entered, checked in, then went to look in the shop (as you do!)
Our Day: Part 2, Factory Tour
At 11:30am our tour began. Our tour leader took us on a fascinating tour, following the process of making their pottery. Starting with the making of the clay and the pouring into the moulds …
… to the ‘smoothing down the edges’ team …
… to the glaze dipping …
Slightly out of sync, we were then taken to the amazingly patriotic design room, where a team were hand-printing the designs on to cups, plates, and vases.
The concentration hit you as you walked into this room … they worked in silence. Many wore headphones to stop distraction. They had to mix up their own colours, and they had to be perfect else they’d be rejected.
I was in awe of these women (all female, on the shift we saw anyway); I felt nervous for them as what they were doing was so delicate!
The sponge stamps they were using had been hand cut by a different team too … it seems that every step in the process is very hands on.
Our Day: Part 3, Afternoon Tea
Our tour ends, conveniently, back in the café. Perfect timing, as we were then led to a table for our lunch. Obviously, all the pottery was Emma Bridgewater. We were served a huge pot of tea, and this was quickly followed by an amazing platter of food. I’ll post this picture for you to study for a few moments!
It was most delicious! And it was also unfinishable! We snuck a couple of the mini-cakes each into our bags to have with a cup of tea back at the hotel (unfortunately we forgot all about them and we discovered a layer of crumbs the following day!)
After lunch we had a quick look in their shop (made some pertinent purchases 😊) and then made our way across the courtyard to the painting room.
Our Day: Part 4, Painting Studio
My nerves hadn’t settled by the time we arrived here!
We were told that we could pick any item to decorate from the rack. Anything up to £15 was included in our experience, anything over that and you’d have to pay the difference. I chose a butter dish and lid, at a price of £22. Because I’d need it posted to me after kilning (£5 postage), I paid an additional £12 that I thought was great value. Mind, only good value if I made a good job of it (cue nerves again!) Georgena – who IS creative – chose two mugs to decorate.
We ordered more tea, and sat at a table awaiting instruction. There were lots of sponge stamps that you could use (I made full use of them!) and we were given a bowl of water, a pot of paint brushes and a palette to pour paint into. We were told that the colours become a lot brighter/deeper once kilned, so we had a chart to follow. I wanted to use the famous Emma Bridgewater blue, yellow, and brown … basically to match the colours of our newly revamped kitchen.
I gathered the letters to spell out BUTTER. This I wanted written on both sides of the dish. It was a bit hit and miss, but I eventually got there. I then got a selection of sponge stars of different sizes, and added them in a somewhat random manner. I then decided to stop, as I was at risk of ruining it by doing too much.
I had initially planned to add thumbprint hedgehogs on whatever I designed … I lost my nerve in the end. However, I did turn the butter dish over and print a hedgehog on the bottom!
Georgena painted a hare on her first mug (for her) and printed a train on the other (for her train-driver husband)! Keep reading to see the finished items!
The End Results
I definitely didn’t find the painting ‘relaxing’. Quite stressful actually. But that was because of the fear of cocking it all up! I concentrated so hard, I had to remind myself to breathe. However, at the end I felt a sense of achievement, and I just hoped that once dipped in the glaze and kilned, it would be forgiving of all the ‘rubbing out’ I did! Well, see for yourself … here’s the finished, glazed, kilned butter dish that arrived just before Christmas. No-one else will have one like this, anywhere!
Of course, I also need to show you videos of Georgena’s finished mugs. Good aren’t they!
Overview of our Experience Day
Simply put, it was amazing. Gorgeous building, lovely people, fascinating tour, incredible lunch, character-building painting session (!) … and all for £30. What excellent value. I’d love to do it again 😊
And my butter dish now takes pride of place on the island in my kitchen. A visible reminder of the brilliant day we had in Stoke-on-Trent. We both recommend it to anyone looking for a great day out.